As I wrote in the news section this week, a developer has submitted plans to the city to raze buildings on corner lots in three busy, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods—Wallingford, Queen Anne, and West Seattle—to plop down short, squat corporate pharmacies with parking lots. They could build higher—the lots are zoned for mixed-use buildings—but instead, they're just replicating suburban strip-mall design in an urban setting, really pissing off the neighbors.
A sign on the Wallingford site directing residents to the first design review meeting.
The Northeast design review board, which has a certain amount of regulatory authority over the design of new buildings, took an interesting tack in an August 5 meeting: The city and neighborhood design guidelines say that "projects should be compatible with the scale of development anticipated by the applicable Land Use Policies for the surrounding area." Stay with me! Basically, that means it's not enough to build things to fit the neighborhood now—you need to consider the development expected in the near future, which is mainly regulated by what kinds of buildings the city says you can put there. In this case, the city has zoned that lot and others like it for taller, mixed-use buildings. The design review board essentially said the one-and-a-half-story pharmacy with its giant surface parking lot would be ignoring the anticipated growth of the neighborhood, and partly on that basis they rejected the plans and asked the developer to come back for a second meeting on the project with new, better ideas.
When I mentioned this to the city's Department of Planning and Development director, Diane Sugimura, she was surprised. When people cite that section of the guidelines about fitting the scale of the neighborhood, she said, it's generally for the opposite reason. "Usually it’s something that's too big and they want it to fit in to be smaller," she laughed. But Joe Hurley of the design review board was adamant on this point, saying that a lot zoned for 40-foot buildings is zoned specifically for mixed-use, and that "this whole [proposal] is a nonstarter for me on that issue."
Awesome! The design review board is doing its job. And yet, no one's really sure that they have the power to force someone to build a bigger building than they want to, least of all Sugimura. "That would be a question that I don't know that I've ever had raised, where [the review board] is asking for more than is being proposed," she told me. She noted that design guidelines are technically "only guidelines," and that "the requirements in the code do not have a minimum right now."
So then what are the other avenues to change these developments into what people actually want?
Well, as I said in the piece, Capitol Hill successfully fought a nearly identical proposal for the Walgreens at Broadway and Pine, turning a one-story pharmacy with a parking lot into an award-winning mixed-use affordable housing project. That was done by neighbors protesting vociferously and unceasingly, which resulted in Walgreens' corporate offices sending reps out here to see what was up. They decided it was more worth the trouble to partner with local Capitol Hill Housing to change the entire design than to face such universal opposition from the neighborhood.
The pharmacy said to be moving into these neighborhoods is CVS, which doesn't have any stores here now. They won't confirm it to us, saying only that they have "no announcement at this time for store openings in Seattle." But CVS is the only pharmacy listed as a major client of the developer, Velmeir, and you can look at the proposed design, then google pictures of CVS stores to see the obvious overlap.
So do they really want to come into a new market under a storm of fierce negative publicity? Perhaps not. Or perhaps they don't give a shit. But the next move for activists, who are also pushing city council to consider legislation that might affect these developments to some degree (see my post yesterday on Richard Conlin's role in all this), may very well be to make things really uncomfortable for CVS until their higher-ups take notice. Make it so unpleasant to defy the residents that the corporate folks come to the table to talk with them. And the neighborhood activists I've talked to plan to go to every meeting and poster every corner and shout to the rooftops until they do.